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Highlights of the Festival of Faith & Writing

For the last three days, I’ve been soaking up the wonderful atmosphere of the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College, a biannual event for writers, publishers, and—best of all—readers. Here are some highlights.

  1. Kate Braestrup, author of the memoir Here If You Need Me, talking about the joys and pitfalls of writing about spiritual practice. When you write books about things like prayer, people tend to expect that you’re an expert on those things, even if you see yourself as a fellow pilgrim who is learning along the way. In her book (which I went out and bought immediately after the session), she talks about how important it is in ministry to let yourself disappear so that God can work through you. (I know that feminists have done some important work on how women should not want to disappear, but Braestrup wasn’t speaking about disappearance as disempowerment; it was actually the reverse.) Braestrup is a chaplain in the Maine Warden force, which means that she goes along with search parties when children are missing, or people have gone off to the woods to commit suicide. Not a pretty job. Here If You Need Me is about the stories of pastoral care in critical situations, all tied up with Braestrup’s own heartwrenching story of suddenly becoming a widow and single mom of four young kids.
  2. Hearing Shane Claiborne speak and realizing that he not only looks exactly like my brother, he’s a caring person like my brother. But my brother does not have a southern accent. Anyway, Shane’s stories about walking with the poor were inspiring and brought tears to my eyes, even though much of the talk was a retread of material he’s published before. What I learned from that is when an author is speaking from the heart, some things bear repeating. One story I had not heard before was especially powerful and memorable. When he was working at Mother Teresa’s House of the Dying in Calcutta, Shane befriended a fellow volunteer on the bus who said she was struggling with her identity as a lesbian. Shane encouraged her to talk to Mother Teresa about it, which she did. “What did she say to you?” he asked her a couple of days later. The woman said that mostly, Mother Teresa just listened to the story. And then she finished the conversation by asking the volunteer, “Would you read the Scripture in our worship tomorrow morning?” That invitation, that acceptance, spoke louder than any sermon or advice Mother Teresa could have given.
  3. Meeting Nikki Stafford, the pop culture writer. Nikki and I started corresponding almost ten years ago when I was writing What Would Buffy Do? and she had already published the excellent series guide Bite Me. At the Festival, I heard her speak in a solo session, and then today the two of us did a public conversation on how & why to write about pop culture. Great questions from the audience! People are very passionate about pop culture . . . .
  4. Meeting readers. Wow. I was floored this weekend by the number of people who sought me out to say how much they had enjoyed Flunking Sainthood or hearing me speak. I really treasure those comments (and also people’s stories about how they’d flunked sainthood themselves). And a special thank you to reader Alison Hodgson, who saw on Facebook how much I love lilacs and brought me some to put in my hotel room. I felt like a rock star.
  5. Hanging out with friends and fellow writers – this is always the best part! Sometimes being a writer is a very lonely road, so we cling to each other and share ideas. I discovered that poet Aaron Belz is hilarious and that River Jordan's stories of praying for total strangers can make me cry. (I bought their books too.)

Next week I’ll post a bit of what I said in my solo session, “Memoir Is Cheaper Than Therapy.” Right now I need to rest! Welcome, Sabbath.

The image of a stack of books is used with permission of

Topics: Culture, Arts & Media
Beliefs: Christian - Catholic, Christian - Orthodox, Christian - Protestant, Interfaith, Islam, Judaism, Mormon
Tags: aaron belz, alison hodgson, calvin college, festival of faith and writing 2012, flunking sainthood, here if you need me, jana riess, kate braestrup, mother teresa, nikki stafford, praying for strangers, river jordan, shane claiborne, spiritual practice


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